I speak with a lot of people who are struggling, isolated, lacking purpose. My hunch is (with only anecdotal evidence to back this up) that it’s often men who are often missing something. This missing something is generally not something you can get from therapy. A lot of talking therapies are very much needed and a life line especially when there is a mental health disorder present. These therapies are usually person centred or orientated around a set of specific treatment goals, but I think that sometimes the missing ingredient is this; a framework to live by, a set of rules, values and virtues to adhere by, a code of conduct. A warrior’s code of ethics if you will. I think that a lot of men (not everyone) would benefit from being given some instructions on how to live. Could the disciplines and values of Stoicism be the missing ingredient?
It is often said that being stoic is having a stiff upper lip or being emotionless. It is certainly not this. My oversimplified definition of stoicism is this; stoicism is doing what is right despite how you feel.
* Disclaimer: I need to start off and say that I am not a philosopher (if you are, I’d love to chat with you and I’m open to correction of my very amateur knowledge). I am not an expert on stoicism. I am just an MH nurse and someone who is curious and loves getting sucked into the ancient world with all its mystery and knowledge. A lot of this knowledge has been washed away by time and only few things remain from the era of the Stoics, namely in the works of Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. In the latter we are left with this tantalising memoir; ‘meditations’. A journal of the most powerful man, who walked 2000 years ago. He lived in a world where it seemed that all the moral corruption was kept at bay by him trying his best to be true to and committed to the principles of Stoicism.
Much of what Stoicism is owes itself to Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelus. Between them they introduced the world to the fundamentals of Stoicism; self discipline, self control, acceptance of fate, being mindful, being at one with nature and living in accordance with the virtues. The ancient Greeks thought a lot about the ‘virtues’. These virtues have played a huge part in various schools of thought and religion over the years. These virtues represented the epitome of good, the right way to be, the moral peak of what we should all aim for. The flip side is the vices (think of the film 1995 film Seven). The Stoic virtues are; Wisdom, Justice, Courage, Temperance.
Wisdom. The ability to make good judgments and choices based on reason and understanding. It involves cultivating knowledge, understanding, and practical wisdom, and applying these virtues in daily life. Wisdom is knowing what the right thing is.
Courage. This refers to the ability to face challenges and difficulties with bravery and fortitude. It involves standing up for what is right, even in the face of fear or opposition, and accepting the consequences of our actions. Courage is doing the right thing even though you may not want to.
Justice: The ability to treat others fairly and with respect, and to act in accordance with moral and ethical principles. It involves treating others with kindness, compassion, and fairness, and upholding the rights and dignity of all individuals. Justice is treating others fairly and kindly, even though you may not want to.
Temperance. The ability to exercise self-control and moderation in all aspects of life, including our emotions, desires, and impulses. It involves cultivating a sense of inner calm and tranquillity, and avoiding excess or extremes. Temperance is having self control even despite your emotions.
It’s all good knowing what these mean and the definitions. Like any therapy or new skill, knowing about it is a fraction of what we need to do. In order to change we have to act and do it in the real world and then reflect on it. Luckily stoicism gives us the tools to do this. In order to become more virtuous. We need to practise its disciplines.
When I’ve read about stoicism and look through Epictetus’ Discourses and Marcus Aurelisus Meditations, I often think; ‘wow, this sounds like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy…this sounds like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy…this sounds like Mindfulness’. It seems that the wisdom in these more modern approaches owe a lot to stoicism. I find it especially apparent in the disciplines. For any of you who have looked at CBT or read about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, these disciplines might sound eerily familiar. These three disciplines work together to help you live a life of virtue and inner peace, even in the face of challenges and adversity. By cultivating the discipline of perception, action, and will, Stoics aim to live in accordance with reason and virtue, and to lead a fulfilling and meaningful life.
The Discipline of Perception: this involves training oneself to see the world objectively, without being clouded by personal biases or emotions. It involves learning to distinguish between what is within our control and what is outside of it, and focusing our energy and attention on what we can control. Example: your colleague calls in sick, again. You think; ‘they are lazy…lying…they are unreliable…this is unfair’. You now have more work to do atop your workload. You are irritated and annoyed when all manner of thoughts are going round your head. You can either blame them, get angry and let it affect your work. Or you can show some empathy and compassion and focus on what is in your control rather than the hypothetical worries and judgements you are making. A Stoic, would reflect on their own biases, suspend hypotheticals and stick to the job at hand. A Stoic would recognise that whatever the reason for frequent sickness, even if not genuine, it doesn’t matter. You remain true to yourself and stick to what you can do regardless of others.
The Discipline of Action: this involves taking action towards the virtues, and living a life of purpose and meaning. It involves cultivating habits of self-discipline and self-control, and making decisions based on what is right, rather than what is easy or expedient. Example: you are on a busy train. An elderly gentleman gets on, he’s far down the carriage and a train full of people are blocking the way to you so it’s not as easy giving up a seat for him. He is clearly in pain and looking for somewhere to sit, but the train is packed. No one moves or offers. You can do what is easy and look out the window. Not your problem, he’s far down the train and it’s someone else’s problem. Or you can do something about it. Here one option is easy, but arguably morally wrong, the other, is harder but more virtuous. Discipline of Action means learning to make and test out decisions to act on what is right, even though you may not want to.
The Discipline of Will: this involves developing inner resilience and strength, in order to cope with adversity and overcome challenges. It involves recognising that we cannot control external events, but we can control our own thoughts, emotions, and responses to those events. This discipline also involves embracing the transience of life and accepting that everything is impermanent. Example: you injure yourself. It means time off from the gym/work and cancelling upcoming events you had planned. You are gutted. It’s a massive set back.You curse, ruminate, stew, you want for the past and future without injury, you envy, you desire more, compare yourself to others, regret, blame or self loath. Instead you can accept it and accept your nature as a human in this world, shit happens. A Stoic would be thankful for the time prior without injury and would accept that life happens, you are a passenger. A stoic would be at peace with what this has happened to them and they have the resilience and fortitude to adapt, cope and manage.
These three disciplines overlap and work together to help you live a life of virtue and inner peace, even in the face of challenges and adversity. By practising the disciplines of perception, action, and will, you can lead a ‘good life’. A meaningful life. A life that is fulfilling.
Self Reflection: Get Journaling
You know what Stoicism has in common with almost any therapy: self-reflection. It’s an effective way to gain self-awareness and improve your character, your resilience and rationality, thus forging your path to being virtuous. Self-reflection involves examining thoughts, beliefs, and actions with an objective and critical eye, in order to identify areas where you could improve and become a better person.
Socrates, another ancient Greek I know very little about, is credited with the phrase
‘the examined life,” which meant that a person should constantly reflect on their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, and seek to align them with reason and virtue. Just thinking about my experience with talking with people with mental health problems, learning to separate difficult emotions and thoughts from reason and self control makes a lot of sense. This is kinda what a lot of therapies actually do. It’s not always easy, but a lot of therapies, like CBT, help people manage difficult thoughts and emotions by learning more about being more reasonable and exercising more self control. An example of this is someone with a phobia, a chunk of therapy, is helping people see the phobic object for what it actually is, which is usually nothing that bad and reflect on this. Or someone with depression; therapy is often started with helping them make little changes to their day even though they feel depressed. These changes are solidified by self reflection.
Stoics recommend the practice of keeping a journal or diary to aid in self-reflection. By recording your thoughts and experiences on a regular basis, a person could better understand their own patterns of thought and behaviour, and work to correct any negative tendencies. So get journaling. I owe the journaling prompts below to Donald Robertson, who nicked them from Epictetus. Read more about them here. Buy yourself a lovely old fashioned notepad and a nice pen, and a few times a week, preferably each night ask yourself these questions.
What have I done well today, with regard to self-improvement and fulfilling my potential in life?
Where did I go wrong, in this regard?
What did I omit that I could do next time?
Furthermore, when reflecting, include the virtues you aimed for or the discipline you practised. Read more about Stoicism. There is a wealth of wisdom to dive into. It was really hard trying to condense some of things I’ve learned about Stoicism in a blog article, even though it’s a pretty hefty word count. There is so much more I want to write about and I’ll save this for another blog!
If this blog has piqued your interest. I thoroughly recommend Donald Robersons book; ‘how to think like a Roman Emperor’. Also, any book written by the Daily Stoic; Ryan Holiday is well worth it. Or you could just cut out the middleman and pick up Marcus Auerilius’ Meditations and Epictetus’ Discourses. Plus you’ll look really cool reading them in a chesterfield in the corner of a boutique coffee shop.
Closing note. If you are someone who is struggling, missing a bit of purpose and maybe you’ve tried a few things already. I really think having a little delve into Stoicism would be worth it. As I discussed at the beginning, Stoicism provides a way to live. It might not be perfect, but I think that lots of people, in particular men, could benefit from adhering to a framework like Stoicism. If you are really struggling, seek help from your Dr and/or lean on some support.
So that’s a mental health nurse perspective on Stoicism. Agree? Disagree? Are you a ‘Stoic’? Would love to hear your thoughts.
About the author
I have been working as a mental health nurse since 2016 and have been around the block working in a lot of different areas. At present I work in a service where I assess people and provide interventions. I love my job, I love learning and talking to people about mental health and wellbeing. This article represents my personal opinion and is certainly not medical advice. If you have concerns about your mental health please speak with a GP or health professional.
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